ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Girl Abroad: The Private and the Public in Jab We Met...

Jab We Met, an extraordinarily successful Bollywood film released in 2007, claims to dissolve the structures of traditional authority of family and state to fashion a new citizen and a new relation of conjugality predicated on mutuality and freedom of choice. This article analyses the discourses, ambivalences and aporias that mark it as it re-engineers the relation of woman, nation and the private/public at a historical moment when the nation has become a site of new contestations.

REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESapril 25, 2009 vol xliv no 17 EPW Economic & Political Weekly58A fuller version of this paper titled “Apportioning the Private and the Public: Gendered Spaces in Mainstream Indian Cinema” was presented at a workshop (sponsored by SEPHIS and SOROS) on Women and the Public Sphere, Baku, Azerbaijan, June 2008.Shoba Venkatesh Ghosh (asg1989@gmail.com) is with the department of English, University of Mumbai.Girl Abroad: The Private and the Public in Jab We Met… Shoba Venkatesh GhoshJab We Met, an extraordinarily successful Bollywood film released in 2007, claims to dissolve the structures of traditional authority of family and state to fashion a new citizen and a new relation of conjugality predicated on mutuality and freedom of choice. This article analyses the discourses, ambivalences and aporias that mark it as it re-engineers the relation of woman, nation and the private/public at a historical moment when the nation has become a site of new contestations.The year 2007 saw the extraordinary success of two films with powerful and unconventional female protagonists. Jab We Metdraws from the road movie genre, while Chak De! India derives from the sports film. Neither of these genres has been an identifiable part of the repertoire of the Hindi cinema, although both have appeared occasionally as one-off experiments. The significance of these two films lies not only in their generic experimentation, but in the fact that, they seem to gender genres which in their predication on mobility (in the road film) and physicality (in the sports film) would seem to favour the exploring of masculinities. Both the films are made from what can be called broadly secular and liberal ideological positions that draw from the discourse of women’s rights to the public sphere among other things. Freedom from patri-archal strictures rather than duty or desirability becomes the central trope, suggesting an epistemological shift in the representation of the woman. Of course, this never erupts out of the project of imagining the nation, but, I would argue, the nation itself undergoes a semantic shift. For one thing, non-metropolitan, small-town India, whose realities are all but erased in much of mainstream Hindi cinema, forces its way into the frame and into the cartography of the nation. The films also seem to move out of a hegemonic India-as-Hindu frame-work and acknowledge the entitlements of marginalised ethnicities and communities. For instance, the hockey coach in Chak De! India is a Muslim, while the members of the girls’ hockey team come from varied ethnic, regional and class backgrounds. The female protagonist inJab We Met belongs to the minority Sikh community. Above all, in both films the ubiquitous family of the Hindi film would seem to have no more than a tangential, even ineffectual, presence as women lay claim to the public. But these are observations read off from the surface of the films, from what Pierre Macherey would call their declared ideo-logical projects. Macherey draws upon Louis Althusser’s notion of a symptomatic reading of ideological systems to suggest a methodology of reading cultural texts (Althusser 1969; Althusser and Balibar 1979).1 The text’s unconscious evokes and stages on the body of the narrative the historical contradictions that it re-presses, and a symptomatic reading will uncover “ideology in contradiction with itself” (Macherey 1978: 130). For Macherey, a critical reading must locate itself in the gap betweenrepresenta-tion (what is intended: the subject of the narrative) and the figu-ration (how it is realised: its inscription in narrative). It is this critical model of reading that I broadly draw upon to unpack the
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 25, 2009 vol xliv no 1759ideologies of woman, nation and the public sphere constructed by the film that I have chosen for analysis, Jab We Met. The Bombay CinemaThe Bombay cinema, as we know, is a curious creature, refusing easy assimilation into either high or low, elite or mass. An invet-erately hybrid form, it draws with impunity from classical tradi-tions as well as from more popular ones. It is consumed not only by the masses, but also the classes (piquant terms used by the industry to identify its publics). It is regressive and hegemonic in many of its features, but alongside engages in an ongoing debate about the nature of personal, community and national identity. It is anachronistic in its holding onto feudal value systems, particu-larly in relation to family and kinship, but it also reveals a certain timeliness in its appropriation of contemporary discourses, such as of feminism. It is both real and unreal, a fact that is captured in Ashis Nandy’s suggestion that Hindi cinema “asks the right ques-tions but rarely produces the right answers” (cit Pinney 2002: 15). Above all, popular cultural texts are deeply pleasurable artefacts and even as one engages with them one must acknowledge and seek to understand the circuits of pleasure they take the viewer through. A meaningful engagement, then, cannot be but from the inside, as an active consumer who acknowledges their emo-tional and corpothetic2 appeal even while being aware of the re-gressiveness of many of the pleasures created. Nicholas Dirks puts it well: “That cinema is all about pleasure… is part of the problem” (Dirks 2002: 163). New Indian Conjugal PairThe ideological project of Jab We Metcould be identified as the bringing into being of the couple autonomous of the overseeing authorities of family and state. The film claims to dissolve the structures of traditional authority to fashion a new citizen and a new relation of conjugality predicated on mutuality and freedom of choice. This would suggest an ideological commitment to the empowerment of the woman, especially given that she is allowed an unprecedented mobility as the love story plays itself out in the public spaces of the road, the workplace and, indeed, the physical expanses of the nation itself. At yet another level the intent of the film seems to be a critique of the more dehumanising aspects of the nation’s renewed commitment to technological prowess and managerial competence. These are precisely the attributes that are perceived to have equipped India to be a significant player in a globalising arena, but which are seen to have evacuated the social and professional life of more human and humanising aspects. Love, freely chosen and egalitarian in its practice, the film suggests, is what will restore lost meaning. Can we read off from this the fashioning and consolidation of a new national subject shaped by the aspirations and anxieties of a newly mobile middle class coming into consciousness of its own becoming? To understand the significance of this shift, we need to go back briefly to the traditional injunctions against the invention of the couple in the Indian postcolony.According to Madhava Prasad, whereas the western modern (capitalist) state was founded on the stability of the nuclear family (embodied in the autonomy in love of the couple), in India, the transition from the traditional to the modern family has been an unrealised ideal. The need of the state to make alliances with colonial elites whose family structures are authoritarian does not admit “the invention of the private, the zone of intimate exchange and union where…the members of the couple become as one” (Prasad 2000: 96-97). Ravi Vasudevan (1989 and 2000) and Madhava Prasad (2000) have convincingly argued that the domi-nant cinematic genre of the 1950s was the feudal family romance that explored romantic fulfilment under the monitory gaze of the feudal family and traditionally regulated social relationships.3 This genre tacitly acknowledges the modern aspects that have infiltrated the sphere of personal experience (such as romantic love and autonomous female desire) and the need to contain them through the fashioning of the couple for the nuclear family. The feudal family, which constitutes the geography of this ten-sion, functions as a way both of disavowing change, and more subtly, of allowing for it without disturbing social hierarchies. Madhava Prasad suggests that in the feudal family romance, “the drive towards affirmation of conjugality is reined in …: the cou-ple, in other words, is repeatedly reabsorbed into the parental patriarchal family and is committed to its maintenance” (Prasad 2000: 95). We must then ask what significant shifts among the dominant classes and in the features of the Indian state are suggested by the definitive and confident birthing of the autonomous couple in Jab We Met? The state today, as Mary E John points out, is in a process of retreat from its productive function, repositioned as a mediator between the nation and international capital (John 1998: 384). And the constitution of the new masculine middle class citizen (an emerging stakeholder in global capital and player in transnational entrepreneurship) is also tracing a quite differ-ent trajectory, outside of the prescriptive gaze of family. Can one read the film’s privileging of autonomous romantic love and achievement of an unproblematic, self-sufficient conjugality as a significant historical node of patriarchal transformation in the structure of the family in a time of consumer capitalism? Can one read it as the (long deferred) triumph of modern bourgeois sub-jectivity over the traditional family? And, what is the trade-off for women in this transition?Before I explore these questions, I must provide a brief plot synopsis of the film. Aditya Kashyap is the scion of a dead indus-trialist father and an estranged mother who had abandoned her family when she fell in love with another man. Aditya has also just been betrayed in love as his girlfriend marries someone else. The business he has inherited is taking a beating at the market. His mother is legally claiming her share of the family business. Overwhelmed by this concatenation of disasters, Aditya walks out on his life and embarks a train with no idea of where he is headed. On the train, an impulsive, free-spirited Punjabi Sikh girl named Geet intrudes into his life and consciousness, at first only as a source of irritation. Unrelentingly talkative and uninhibited, she reveals that she had been in a boarding school in Shimla and has been working in Mumbai where she lived in a working women’s hostel. She is now returning to her family in Bhatinda, but only, she declares gleefully, until she runs off to marry a man called Anshuman who lives in Manali and is a non-Sikh. As the
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESApril 25, 2009 vol xliv no 17 EPW Economic & Political Weekly60train takes them away from metropolitan India into the recesses of the country, they are partners in a series of mishaps that in-cludes a missed train, being stranded in a small station, a chase after the train, a brief sojourn in a sleazy small-town hotel and incursions into parts of the country they have never been to be-fore. Finally, they do make it to Bhatinda, where Aditya is em-braced by the family as the daughter’s saviour. All this is punctu-ated by strategically placed spectacular song sequences (which contributed vastly to the film’s popularity). However, Bhatinda and the bosom of family is only an intervening episode as Geet decides to run away again to avoid an arranged marriage. The two then set out again, this time for Manali where Geet hopes to be united with Anshuman. Nestling in all this is an evolving love story as Aditya’s earlier defences crumble under Geet’s cavalier and resolutely positive attitude to life. After having delivered her to Manali, he returns to Mumbai and to his business with a new outlook. Taking control of his life and work he turns his company around, learns to weave his passion of music into his professional life, forgives his mother and offers her rightful share of the busi-ness. At this point, flush with professional success, but haunted by memories of Geet, he is visited by her father and uncle who inform him that she has been missing for nine months. Aditya promises to find her and sets out for Manali only to find that Anshuman had rejected Geet and that she has disappeared. He tracks her down to Shimla where she is teaching in her old school, and convinces her to come back to Bhatinda with him. Anshuman too realises his error and accompanies them so as to ask Geet’s family for her hand. The family assumes that Aditya and Geet are the couple and a series of misunderstandings and missed oppor-tunities prevents the revelation of the truth. Finally, in an epiph-anic moment Geet realises her love for Aditya and the film ends with their union.Actual FigurationSo, how is this story inscribed as narrative? And what gaps open up between the intended subject of narrative and its actual figu-ration? The film begins with a black frame into which is fed the sharp and strident sound of a speeding train, invoking at once a feeling of urgency, impending disaster and a suggestion of unex-plored vistas. The train has had a peculiarly evocatory power in Indian culture, particularly in the cinema. It has long served as a metonym for modernity, for possibility, as well as for the fear of the unknown. The Indian railway system, ritually touted as the largest and most complex transportation network in the world, is also particularly evocative of the nation itself as an entity that putatively embodies unity in diversity. In this film the recurrent motif of missing the train, both literally and in nightmare, makes manifest the particular anxiety of a class at the threshold of un-imaginable global possibilities. The crippling sense of inadequacy in the face of this decisive historical moment is what is captured in that first sound effect that initiates the film. This finds its vis-ual equivalent in the opening shot which is a tight close-up of Aditya’s face, beleaguered and shell-shocked, as a cacophony of voices assaults him from the off-screen space. The cut to the next shot, a mid-long composition, reveals Aditya in a plush corporate office hemmed in by his agitated colleagues, his estranged mother, and her lawyer who is stridently representing her claim to a share of the family business. The first close-up does several things at once. It establishes Aditya’s as the structuring subjectivity of the narrative. Further, the lack of connect between him and his surroundings gestures towards, and apparently critiques, the capitalist-corporate arena’s inhospitability to the needs of the individual subjectivity. The tangential but key reference to the recent death of Aditya’s father adds a further degree of complexity to the scenario. Without meaning to over-read its significance, I see in it the desta-bilisation and increasing irrelevance of indigenous centres of authority. In the global field of capitalist combat, internal sources of authorisation and paternalistic protection seem more and more toothless. Add to this Aditya’s failure in love, and his sense of emasculation is complete. He is shown walking away from his world, renouncing it symbolically in a sequence of shots in which he discards his mobile phone, his watch, his money, and most significantly as we shall see, his tie. He boards a train and embarks on an uncharted journey of self-discovery and self-reconstitution. And where is the woman inserted into this journey?Geet’s introduction into the narrative is diametrically opposite to that of Aditya’s. In that opening close-up he was presented as pure subjectivity, as it were, which is then embedded in the exter-nal world through the cut-transition to the composite shot. That, as noted, signals the privileging of his perspective and filtering consciousness. Geet, on the other hand, is offered up to view from theoutside, so to speak. As the train is pulling out of the station, we first hear her voice; then we see her belongings which precede her on board; and then Geet herself is visually realised as she laughingly jumps on amidst much commotion. Her introduction is, thus, fetishistic, incremental and indexical. Her luggage is lit-erally a “mixed bag” of fluffy stuffed toys, a bag with green plants, a framed religious picture of Sikh saints. The objects together create for her a subject position which she then proceeds to occupy. She displays, like her baggage, a mix of childishness, natural spontaneousness and rootedness in her Punjabi culture. As such she is set up as the exact counterpoint to Aditya, and as becomes obvious soon enough, rendered primarily as the means to his salvation. Already, the ideological project of the film – that of birthing the “companionate couple” marked by mutuality and freedom – begins to seem unstable.Woman in Public SphereEven if from the start, there is a fixity to Geet’s narrative and the-matic function, she becomes the site for ambivalent, even contra-dictory, codings which stage the film’s own ambivalence vis-à-vis feminism and sexual ideologies. There is an engaging moment immediately after Geet has been pulled on to the moving train by a young male fellow passenger. She turns laughingly to him and suggests that he let go of her hand now that she is aboard. And anyway, she teases, she is not so pretty that he cannot let go. The lack of outrage or coyness in her response seems to suggest a security in her own sexuality. Then she moves towards the air-conditioned (AC) compartment complaining that her family is against her travelling in the general compartment as they
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 25, 2009 vol xliv no 1761consider it unsafe. What, she asks, is the connection between the AC compartment and women’s safety? This is, fundamentally, a feminist insight into the politics of women’s safety and the public sphere. It critiques the patriarchal ideology of protectionism, and underlines both its restriction of women’s mobility and its actual failure to ensure safety. As Shilpa Phadke writes in a study of risk and the public sphere, “…what women need in order to access the public space as citizens is not so much the provision of safety as the right to take risks” (Phadke 2007: 1510, emphasis added). However, it is not long before these liberatory moments in the text are undercut and closed off. I refer to the point in the narra-tive when Geet finds herself alone in a small station at night after having failed to board the missed train for a second time. The station, peopled primarily by local small-town men, acquires a threatening, predatory quality. When some young men approach her ostensibly to help but with obviously questionable motives, her earlier confidence deserts her and in an unconvincing show of bravado she shouts at them to back off. She reveals a disturb-ing lack of public intelligence, the inability to intelligently negoti-ate a male public space. She then hurries out of the station and the camera frames her figure head-on with a huddled group of muttering and sniggering young men behind her. She is relieved to sight a group of women outside and rushes to join them. What is astonishing is her inability to recognise them as sex-workers. It is only when a young man on a motorbike propositions her that she even recognises the signs around her. The earlier solidarity with the women dissolves and she hastens to mark her distinc-tion from them.4 As she tries to explain that she is not a sex-worker, she lacks even the language to do so. “I am not… not… that kind of woman… I am not one of ‘them’…”. Inexplicably, what had been earlier coded as her sexual confidence and inci-sive understanding of patriarchal contradictions now mutates into rank sexual and social ignorance. The mise en scènecreates a sense of enveloping danger, with Geet’s figure being literally encircled and hemmed in by the denizens of this nether world. Sighting Aditya in the distance she runs after him and embraces him in a paroxysm of relief. In this alien social landscape, their shared class provenance becomes the point of identification. As they hug, a long-shot frames them against a long picket fence in the background. The fence acquires metaphoric resonances: it is a clear-cut boundary that shuts off the dark and unknown spaces of the social underbelly. The class-situatedness of the film ex-poses itself persistently in its imaging of the class other as intran-sigent and threatening alterity, even when rendered comically. In the segment being analysed Geet is marked subtly as the middle class female subject whose normativeness lies in her physical charm, a vulnerability that needs proper male protection from “other” men, and a sexual/social ignorance rendered as an engaging innocence. Middle class women, it turns out, do need thatAC compartment! There is yet another narrative segment when we see the film’s ideology “in contradiction with itself”. Aditya and Geet have rented a room in a tacky hotel for a few hours before they pro-ceed to Bhatinda. In the intimacy of the room Aditya opens up to her. He expresses his disgust for his mother who had left the family for another man. In his emotions can be detected a combination of patriarchal intolerance for the transgressive woman (a mother, to boot) and classic Oedipal symptoms. Inter-estingly, Geet intervenes on his mother’s behalf and pleads her case. This is an exciting moment of feminist possibilities, of the opportunity to reframe the notion of gender “transgression” within an alternative discourse of women’s rights. The film seems to strain earnestly towards a progressive politics of gender, but its political imagination cannot stretch far enough. Geet’s argument is that Aditya’s mother did it for love and love is too powerful a force to resist. “All is fair in love”, she declares. This, unwittingly, evacuates the mother’s act of the politicsof choice and moves her from the status of villainess to that of victim-in-love. One could read this as the film’s inability to move out of the epistemological field of patriarchy. Or, more troublingly, it can be construed as the film’s active managing of the latent anxieties created by the exercise of women’s sexual agency, through the formulation of a deformed answer. This is one of the key moments when the text’s relation to its historical moment is laid bare. More and more women in a contemporary landscape, radically altered by the women’s movement and by women’s economic empowerment, are laying claim to their rights to choice and full citizenship, not least of all in the area of sexuality. The ensuing gender realign-ments have created, what Mary E John calls, a mismatch of sorts. “[W]omen”, she writes, “are changing far more than men” (John 1998: 386). It is a mismatch that cannot be acknowledged. But the anxiety it engenders forms the structuring absence of many contemporary mainstream cultural texts including, it would seem, this one. But, even as it begins to seem that the figure of Geet has been tamed to fit a more traditional mould of womanhood, there is in her representation a certain excess that spills out of this normal-ising manoeuvre. For one, she is a desiring woman who strains against the strictures of familial legislation. Her expressed wish is to “live life to the full” and to “make her own mistakes”. Apart from this, her physical energy, her continual mobility offers us a visual iconography of woman that is largely unprecedented in the Hindi cinema. Some of the most invigorating images of the films are the ones where she runs full-pelt after the train or jumps into a lake in sheer physical joy. This is not the familiar eroticised female body of the popular cinema, but one that is lived in and owned by the woman. Song and Dance SequencesIt is also interesting it is Aditya on whom two of the three songs up to the interval (broadly the halfway mark of the film) are focused. In the tradition of the Hindi cinema, the song and dance sequences act as pleasurable interruptions that arrest the narra-tive while retaining a thematic relation to it.5 The first of the songs inJab We Met happens soon after the sleazy hotel episode. A police raid of what turns out to be a den of prostitution forces Aditya and Geet to run out and board a public transport bus. As the bus weaves its way through much of north India, Aditya bursts into a song that metaphorises their physical journey as one of self-discovery. A montage of visuals packages the other India into a tourist’s dream. The growing Indian middle class, it might be recalled, is the prime target for what is emerging as a powerful
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESApril 25, 2009 vol xliv no 17 EPW Economic & Political Weekly62five-star heritage/folk tourism industry. As the film gradually births the new Indian conjugal pair, the limitless body of the nation itself is claimed as the ground for this fashioning. The song’s specific narrative relevance lies in its tracing of a growing bond between the lead pair, although at this point the bond remains non-romantic/non-sexual and, therefore, incomplete (Aditya’s feelings are nascent and Geet’s remain unacknowledged).The second song appears after they have reached Geet’s family home in Bhatinda. The family is immediately recognisable from countless earlier films. It rehearses the stereotype of the large-hearted, boisterous Punjabi clan-as-family with its overseeing pa-triarch. There is one difference, however. The actual power of this family over its children’s destinies is much depleted. The power of the patriarch himself – Geet’s grandfather – seems more formal than real. In fact, the low angle shot that introduces his figure against a row of stuffed animals on the wall behind him is faintly parodic. Geet and Aditya’s deference to him seems to spring more out of a fond and respectful indulgence than out of intimidation. The narrative’s amusing play on the family’s misunderstandings and misinterpretations concerning the relationship between Geet and Aditya suggests that the vaunted family of the Hindi cinema is now only formally in place, and has only a tangential role to play in the invention of the couple. They might arrange a match for Geet, but all it needs is for Geet to up and leave. She instinctively has the matter pegged right when she tells Aditya that even if she were to run off and marry Anshuman (a non-Sikh), the family would be forced to accept it after some initial protest. During his stay with this family Aditya performs a song and dance sequence on request at a communal gathering. As he launches into an energetic bhangra folk song and dance, the camera frames him, rather than Geet, as the proper object of collective national desire. This is the newly consolidated mascu-line citizen, possessing both urban sophistication and native root-edness. His professional acumen as player in global capitalism is balanced by an anchoring in indigenous cultural identity. As such, he is the legitimate claimant to both the nation and the world. All that remains is for Geet to be fashioned into the companionate partner, a process that remains as yet unfulfilled as she still desires another man. That process requires another narrative movement, another journey abroad that will carry her towards self-realisation and her proper destiny. And, so, Geet and Aditya must leave the family home to venture out into the public sphere once again. The road trip to Manali is encapsulated with admirable cine-matic economy in a song and dance sequence, this time centred round Geet. It continues the trend initiated by the first song of packaging the more exotic features of non-metropolitan India into a tourist paradise. But it also introduces a significant new element into this construction, and that is the coterminous construction of the new pan-Indian woman within the paradigm of unity in diver-sity. In the diagetic world created by the song, disparate cultural signs are placed in harmonious proximity – for instance, folk dances from different and geographically far-flung parts of the country co-inhabit the frame quite seamlessly. In this commodifica-tion of place and culture through tourism, women are a central feature. As Geet’s singing and dancing figure anchors the frame, she is surrounded by women dressed in various ethnic garbs. There is even a brides of India parade followed by a beauty contest!6 Here is a representational idiom that attempts to accommodate regional aspects of femininity within a national frame, with the figure of Geet representing the quilting point, the site of synthesis.7 The song ended Aditya and Geet must part, and this parting con-stitutes the interval of the film. As discussed earlier, the interval closes certain narrative strands and opens up new ones. The post-interval scenario moves with some narrative complications towards the mandated happy ending of the popular format. But, first, all loose threads must be tied up. Aditya takes control of his profes-sional life and breathes new life into his company, taking it to un-precedented success. The humanising effect of Geet helps him to blend his passion for music into his workplace. He transforms the ruthless corporate work-ethic into one that is in touch with human values. Above all, he gifts his mother her share of the company. He acknowledges it as her right as she has helped build the business. Here, again, is a moment of great ambivalence. The scene shows him in his office flanked by his mother and the lawyer who is vocif-erously arguing her case. Not once do we hear the mother’s voice, just as we never see her as the professional woman that we are in-formed she is. Inexplicably silent in public, her case must be repre-sented by the lawyer (as earlier it was by Geet).Aditya mocks the lawyer’s verbosity and then proceeds to render his function void. Stealing his thunder he declares his intent to gift his mother her share. Women’s activism, in India as elsewhere, has worked cease-lessly to lobby the state to enlarge and empower women’s rights through the changing of laws pertaining to family, marriage and inheritance. What masculine anxiety, we might ask, underlies the film’s silencing of the mother and disenfranchising of the lawyer? Even while drawing on the discourse of women’s rights, the film undercuts it by suggesting that familial matters such as women’s inheritance are best left outside of the scrutiny of state and law and resolved instead through the exercise of individual humanity and good conscience. Women’s access to their rights, then, is secured not by women’s agency or the nation’s structures of governance but through the beneficence of right-thinking men.All the loose threads from the past tied up, Aditya now imagines the future. Professional life consolidated and family relations healed, all that remains is the proper conclusion to the love story and the final precipitation of the conjugal pair. At this point, there is a song that crystallises, as fantasy, the telos of the desires that drive the film. A love song plays on the soundtrack as Aditya dreams of Geet even as he goes about his business at the workplace. The picturisation of the song is a quite extraordinary exercise in re-imagining the relationship of the private and the public, of the personal and the professional. A vision of Geet appears as the function of Aditya’s desires to harmonise all aspects of his life. The visuals show the couple-to-be (signalling the realm of the private) embedded within the public sphere of the capital-ist workplace. In one of the shots, theatrical lighting highlights the two as they dance in the centre of what is obviously a meeting/board-room. Their dancing figures are enveloped on three sides, as if in a uterine embrace, by a dimly-lit horseshoe-shaped table at which cor-porate professionals are engaged in their business. Here, then, is the birthing of the conjugal pair adequate to the needs of capitalism. In-deed, the pair is a function of capitalism, at once its building block and the means to its perpetuation. At the end of the dance, there is a
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 25, 2009 vol xliv no 1763smooth, almost imperceptible cut to the same board room, but this time without the cavorting couple and with a changed lighting that brings the peripheries of the previous frame into clear view. The pro-fessionals seated at the table stand up to applaud. A crane-down re-veals that the object of their approbation is not the couple but Aditya who has presumably pulled off a corporate coup. Private, thus, segues into the professional/public in a smooth continuum. The latter half of the song moves closer into the private sphere as Aditya fantasises about the conjugal relationship. The initial shots of the ensuing montage show the pair as companions and partners in the sphere of the home. Then a significant slippage occurs and moves into place an internal conjugal hierarchy. Aditya, in fantasy, is seen preparing to leave for work. Geet, uncharacteristically demure in de-meanour and dress, hands him the tie that he has forgotten to wear. There is a cut to a confident and authoritative Aditya, phallus-like tie in place, striding into his professional arena. Read in conjunction with the shot at the beginning of the film when he had discarded his tie, this is very obviously a sign of Aditya’s reclaimed and reinforced personal and professional masculinity. The last few shots of the song transfer the pair to the bosom of nature. They cavort in the rain as a top-angle shot binds their twirling figures and draws a circle around them. Not only has the conjugal pair been invented; it has, very liter-ally, been naturalised. The purpose of ideology, it has been said, is the erasure of contra-dictions. This erasure, to achieve its aim, must succeed in invisibilising its own operations. This is where the sequence just analysed fails and exposes itself as ideological manoeuvre. The recasting of Geet as demure and domesticated, despite its violence, is unable to undo the earlier liberatory images of her, which as I have argued carry a tre-mendously invigorating charge. The images that persist after a view-ing of the film are not those of the tamed Geet but of the earlier Geet excessive in her energy and physicality. This is what, I would argue, allows us the manoeuvring space for the feminist politics of a non-complicit reading. My stand is based on nothing more than the faith that if the cracks that open up and endanger the ideological uni-verse of the text are apparent to me, then they must be so to other readers too (including those reading without a consciously feminist agenda). And this is why, I submit, the last part of the film that sets out to realise what has already been realised as fantasy, remains unconvinc-ing and contradicted. Aditya assumes the role of saviour to a defeated Geet. She realises that it is her own stupidity that has brought her to a sorry pass – rejection by Anshuman, separation from her family, and having to economically fend for herself. Scenes showing her working as a teacher in her old school in Shimla are bleak, lifeless and claus-trophobic. (What does that say of the film’s vision of women and work?) She is torn between accepting and rejecting a contrite Anshu-man. Finally, an overdetermined narrative resolution mandates her recognition of her true love. The proper couple is realised and its un-ion sealed, significantly, with a kiss.8 Such a conclusion no doubt pro-vides the pleasures of the expected happy ending and fulfilled genre conventions. But these pleasures must remain troubled by the tacit violence that has affected this narrative and ideological closure. In ConclusionI have attempted, through an analysis of a highly successful contem-porary Hindi film to identify the discourses, ambivalences and apo-rias that mark it as it re-engineers the relation of woman, nation and the private/public at a historical moment when the nation has be-come a site of new contestations. In the main, my reading traces the film’s dissolving of one structure of traditional authority to replace it with a new one as it brings into being the new bourgeois couple ad-equate to the needs of global capitalism. The film effects this trans-formation by taking its protagonists through various spaces of the public sphere to finally return the woman to a reconstituted private sphere as the male lays claim to the public. A feminist reading, I have tried to show, mines the fissures that mark this process. Notes1 In the Althusserian schema, to read symptomati-cally is not only to read the manifest text, but through the lapses, distortions and silences, to pro-duce and read the latent text. Ideology is a closed system that can only pose the questions it can an-swer, producing deformed answers to those ques-tions that erupt and trouble the cohesiveness of its universe. Macherey extrapolates this reading of ideological systems to the analysis of literary texts (and by extension, to non-literary cultural prod-ucts).2 Drawing upon Buck-Morss’ work on aesthetics, Christopher Pinney suggests that the traditional category of aesthetics is inadequate when theoris-ing the pleasures created by the “immediacy and visual fecundity” of the popular cinema. Instead, he chooses to use the term “corpothetics” to address the “superfluity of corporeal affectivity” and “sen-sory immediacy” through which Bollywood cinema creates its special vectors of pleasure. See Pinney 2002: 19-22. 3 Madhava Prasad (1998) reads the form of the “feu-dal family romance” that dominated in the 1950s and 1960s as a “symptom of the nature of power in a ruling alliance in which the bourgeoisie is only one of several constituents”. The feudal family ro-mance represents, in terms of narrative form, the political compromise at the level of the state. Ac-cording to Vasudevan (2000), “This form releases a series of new drives – to individual romantic fulfil-ment, and formation of the couple for the nuclear family, consumerist orientations, affiliations to an impersonal state form – but ultimately subordi-nates them to the rule of ‘traditionally regulated social relationships’ ”. 4 In the context of the middle class woman’s invest-ment in respectability and reputation in the public sphere, Shilpa Phadke argues that “[sex] work is stigmatises precisely because it is visible in public. Among the concerns expressed by the police in re-lation to public soliciting…is the fear of not being able to distinguish the sex worker from the non-sex worker” (Phadke 2005: 74). 5 The song and dance sequence is one of the most important and mandatory interruptions to the nar-rative, and sets out to create multiple pleasures for its audiences. It is also the occasion for the spectac-ular showcasing of the woman and the prime site for the production of what Kasbekar calls “trans-gressive pleasures” within a narrative that officially eulogises the ideal Indian woman. It allows for the erotic contemplation of the female body, but disa-vows the voyeurism it creates in the film viewer through very specific strategies. The pleasures pro-vided are varied. There is not just the pleasure of music but of the scopic pleasure of spectacular dances. The heroine’s many changes of costume within a single sequence constitute a veritable fash-ion parade. Further, the song and dance interludes amplify the emotional content of the narrative. They allow “an expression of feeling that cannot be articulated otherwise – notably the declaration of love” (Dwyer and Patel 2002: 37). Lalitha Gopalan points out that “the abrupt cut to exotic locations sparks the tourist interests of the viewer, and simi-larly the object-laden mise en scène endorses con-sumerism”. In other words, the song and dance se-quence draws “on a host of adjacent economies” (Gopalan 2003: 19).6 Feminist theorists have underlined the special valence that the beauty contest has in contemporary media and market formulations of the empowered Indian woman. Jayati Ghosh (1996) points out that these contests are enjoying a resurgence in devel-oping countries and are about the “business of beauty” as, aided by international capital, western standards of beauty and beauty products find an overseas market. Mary E John furthers the discus-sion by underlining the sense of empowerment that such contests offer women by their acknowledge-ment and addressing of women as newly active and vital consumers. She also notes the “nationalistic fervour” that greeted the two wins of Miss Universe and Miss World by Indian beauty queens some years ago. These women are celebrated as “women of substance” and as international ambassadors of Indian culture in a new climate of market national-ism. As John puts it, “One can serve one’s country well, it would appear, by cultivating the perfect body-image for the market.” (See John 1998: 379-80). To Kumkum Sangari, the indigenous beauty contest is a peculiar spectacle that refashions na-tional identity. “As each contestant enacts the same norm…the ‘Indian’ is subdued to flow into a gener-alised ethnicity that deoderises and whittles down cultural differentialisms” (Sangari 2004: 168).

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top